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Unpacking migration: 700 years of human stories

Dr Jeanette Baxter

It is perhaps the most politically divisive issue of our age, yet how much do we really know about the migration that has already occurred on our doorsteps? An innovative community and theatre project delves headlong into the stories that surround us.

Old narratives, new narratives

In Norwich, migration is as much a part of the city’s fabric as its Cathedral or Carrow Road Football Ground. The city has received many, many waves of migration down the centuries: it became a home to Flemish weavers in the 16th century (known as ‘Strangers’), to Jewish children escaping Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport, and, more recently, to displaced peoples from conflict-torn areas such as Syria, Zimbabwe and the Congo.

This rich history continues to shape the lives of the city’s inhabitants in subtle and profound ways. Yet for many, it is a largely unexplored area of Norwich’s cultural heritage, little discussed in traditional narratives. Until now. Dr Jeannette Baxter, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at our University, is lead researcher on an ambitious project to explore 700 years of migration in Norwich through an original piece of public theatre. The play is based on historical accounts gathered by a community of local citizen researchers, co-ordinated by Jeannette, and will be performed in Norwich venues this summer, from theatre halls to housing estates.

From Flemish 'Strangers' in the 1500s to people displaced by 21st-century conflicts, Norwich has long been shaped by migration

Refugees past and present

As well as historical migration stories uncovered by Norwich-born residents, it features present-day narratives from refugees such as Moussa Ibrahim. His account of his flight from Sudan to the UK is particularly poignant, having travelled across mainland Europe before finally achieving refugee status in the UK and settling in Norwich. A musician, he tells his story through a self-penned song entitled Far Away as part of Come Yew In!

“For Moussa, music has been a powerful way in which he has sought to understand his experiences and express himself,” says Jeannette. “It’s moving to see how the arts can facilitate the sharing of diverse stories which we don’t often hear.” The play itself refuses easy categorisation, as it combines original dance, song, comedy and audience participation. Performances aspire to be not only contemplative and challenging, but also joyful. Its name, Come Yew In!, is a variation on a local expression for ‘welcome’.

The arts can facilitate the sharing of diverse stories which we don’t often hear

“This is the first piece of theatre that explores the history of migration in Norwich and it’s been just fascinating to see the project evolve,” says Jeannette. The project is the brain child of Simon Floyd, Director of The Common Lot theatre group, an open collective which creates shows for, with and about people of Norfolk. Simon asked Jeannette to join the project as lead researcher based on her writings on W.G. Sebald (a German emigrant writer who settled in Norfolk) and also her involvement with New Routes integration project in Norwich. This organisation works with recently-settled, ethnic minority individuals, families and communities and promotes cross-cultural integration.

“Simon Floyd has been a driving force throughout,” explains Jeannette. “He has endless energy and shares this infectious passion that art can make a real difference in the world around us.”

Citizen researchers

A key role for Jeannette has been assisting the citizen researchers with gathering and collating their own research into the migration stories which most interested them. The researchers reviewed published materials and public records, and conducted numerous interviews.

“Across 700 years of history, one of the greatest challenges was to set the historical parameters before breaking the research process down for the researchers,” she explains.

The project’s research phase ended in March 2017 and was followed by a script-writing phase involving creative writing students from the University of East Anglia. In parallel, Jeannette led workshops at local primary schools in which Year 6 children drew on the project’s research to generate their own creative responses to Norwich’s migration histories. The children will perform short pieces at performances of Come Yew In! scheduled to take place in their local community.

Come Yew In! is very entertaining, but it’s not a straightforward  celebration of migration,” says Jeannette. “Migration is certainly not always an easy subject but, as our research has shown us, it’s fascinating and often inspiring.”

Further information about 'Come Yew In!'

Come Yew In! is delivered by The Common Lot theatre group, with writers from the University of East Anglia and musical director Charlie Caine. It involves local residents, including refugees and schoolchildren, as both researchers and performers.

The project has been funded by the Town Close Estate acting on behalf of the Freemen of Norwich, The Common Lot theatre group, and Anglia Ruskin University. The impact of Come Yew In! will continue long after the summer performances. After a request by Schools for Sanctuary, a songbook and drama materials are being produced that will be available to explore the theme of migration in primary and secondary education. Working on this show has been like travelling on a train where you are putting down the tracks as you go forwards! I’ve been inspired and amazed by what we’ve managed to achieve in such a short time. This has been largely due to the sheer enthusiasm and hard work of everyone involved.

“We’ve experienced a lot of generosity from the people of Norwich – they’ve offered much valued spaces in a local school, a pub and at Norwich Arts Centre. I’m just really proud of the whole project community that has got involved.”

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